Written by Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, and Eric Roth
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
In the early 2000s, SciFi Channel aired the first attempt since David Lynch’s adaptation of the Dune novel. They were reasonably successful in creating a mini-series that encompassed the first three books in Frank Herbert’s series. Once again, though, critics voiced concerns over the drawn exposition of the world as the filmmakers had to lay out a distant future for humanity with a limited amount of time. It would be twenty years later that this newest attempt would happen. With a larger budget to do justice to the strange new world eight thousand years in the future, will this version finally be the satisfying film fans and general audiences will click with?
Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune begins centered on Caladan, the planet to House Atreides. Young Paul (Timothy Chalamet) is being trained by his mother, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), in strengthening his mental power. He’s also trained by his father’s aide Gurney (Josh Brolin) in combat. However, changes come quickly to Caladan when an emissary from the Emperor arrives and declares that House Atreides will be taking over the production of the spice Melange on Arrakis at once. This cannot be denied, so Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) packs up his entire noble house and moves to the desolate and harsh desert world.
Paul’s makeshift big brother, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), has gone in advance and traveled with the Freman, the native people of Arrakis. They have a spiritual connection with the world, and its only other inhabitant, the sandworms. Unfortunately, the rough start of the Atreides turns bad when their rival House Harkonnen is sent in by the Emperor to wipe out Leto and his family. Betrayals and deaths abound with Paul and Jessica forced out into the harsh environs of Arrakis. Soon Paul will meet his destiny and become the messiah predicted by his mother’s Bene Gesserit order and the Freman themselves.
I am a big fan of Denis Villeneuve. I hold his Blade Runner 2049 up as one of the best sensory experiences I ever had in a movie theater. It was perfect. Dune is a good movie, but I don’t believe it’s one of the director’s best. Technically the film captures the alien-ness of this future so well. It matches Villeneuve’s visual tone in other pictures, so I think he was the right choice. The problem with adapting Dune is that there seems to be little emotion that comes across from the page. I haven’t read Frank Herbert’s novel, but it does make me wonder how cold the book is. From my experience with the various adaptations, I expect it to be exposition-heavy and characters painted in broad strokes. However, I assume this may be the problem of balancing world-building with character development.
This version of Dune definitely does an excellent job of explaining elements of the world without bogging itself down in unemotional exposition. The writers didn’t allow themselves to get as overwhelmed as David Lynch did. Writer Jon Spaihts has a decent background in writing big-budget studio fare, while Eric Roth is a screenwriting veteran who has penned so many critically acclaimed mainstream films. Everyone uses their talents to provide the first chapter in what is clearly shaped into a multi-film series for Warner Brothers. The story is so overflowing with characters that it becomes hard to have genuine emotions about them all.
Dr. Yeuh (played here by Chang Chen) is an excellent example of a supporting character with a critical role in the story which has consistently fallen flat, in my opinion, in all the adaptations. Yeah will eventually betray House Atreides, but there is no foreshadowing of this fact until it happens. We also never see him having a strong bond with any of the members of the House so that his betrayal will sting. He’s simply a doctor who works for the Atreides. I’ve always felt like Yeah should have a significant emotional impact on the narrative. He’s a signifier for the complete collapse of House Atreides. Not only should they have worried more about the enemies from the outside, they even had brutal traitors inside their court. I thought Lynch provided more of an emotional reaction to Yeuh’s betrayal; I believe Lady Jessica cursed his name. Yet, in Villeneuve’s film, they seem to never remark on it once.
If you have desired a less exposition-dense version than Lynch’s, then I think you will enjoy this Dune. Once again, I think it is full of entertaining spectacle and finds ways to present the evolution of humanity in interesting ways. A lot of the excess is cut away, they have held back on showing the Navigators, the Emperor, and the film only encompasses the first half of the whole story. I surely hope a sequel is coming, and I’d like more of Herbert’s books to make it to the screen. From what I know of where Dune goes, it stretches into some extraordinary places.